By: Shannon Mann
Eighteen students from North Carolina’s first CubeSat team traveled to Kennedy Space Center in Florida in late October to meet with NASA, and other corporate leaders in the field of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
The students are part of the f(x) First in Orbit CubeSat team which formed in April 2020 with the goal of researching, building, and launching a minisatellite into space. As the first team from North Carolina to participate in NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative the team was invited to Florida to present their initial payload ideas to a panel of six engineers.
“It was important for us to go so we could have our design ideas reviewed and critiqued.” said Joseph Evans, a 10th grader at Smithfield-Selma High School. “It was an amazing experience in terms of education, progress and personal enjoyment.”
The team of Johnston County middle- and high-schoolers, along with two college students from N.C. State University and Johnston County Community College, presented two possible ideas to the panel ranging from using piezoelectric sensors to detect space debris to measuring the concentration of low Earth orbit radiation. Both proposals incorporated a unique element in which the team would link their CubeSat communications to another minisatellite being developed by a rookie team in Nebraska so that the satellites could talk to each other while in orbit.
“We spent many hours preparing our slides for the presentation and additional time memorizing our speeches, but in the end it was all worth it,” said Ethan Carroll, a 10th grade homeschooler. “We needed feedback from NASA scientists on our ideas so that we could further refine the designs until we had one solid idea for our final proposal.”
The reviewers asked lots of questions about their research and offered feedback to help the team narrow their focus to one payload. The all-day briefing at KSC’s Center for Space Education also allowed the North Carolina team to meet with middle-schoolers of a veteran team in Florida with a 2018 launch to their credit.
“It was interesting to hear what the Florida teams were doing,” said Sloan Mann, a 7th grade homeschooler. “Some of their project ideas ranged from $120,000 to a million dollars. It is hard to think something so small could cost so much, but we learned a lot from them.”
The opportunity came during a time when most field trips have been put on hold, but the team’s coach, Angela Jenkins, a teacher at Smithfield-Selma High School, was not going to the let the opportunity pass. Since the bulk make-up of the team roster consists of public high school students, Jenkins arranged for the team to brief the Johnston County Board of Education in early September. The board was so impressed with the students’ initiative, and ensuring this historical endeavor stayed in the county, that they unanimously voted to support the four-day trip.
Madi Wallace, a homeschooled 9th grader, said she didn’t know anything about the team when her Science Olympiad coach emailed her, but she knew she had a strong interest in space and couldn’t pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I loved getting the opportunity to speak to NASA scientists who gave us feedback on our payload ideas,” Wallace said. “I also enjoyed getting to know my team better and making new friends throughout this incredible experience.”
The trip to Kennedy Space Center was just the start of an 18 to 36 months journey for this team as they prepare their proposal design review for submission to NASA in mid-December. In addition to researching, building and launching a CubeSat they also have the goal of documenting everything they do to provide educational resources to other teams that might follow in their footsteps.
Chelsea Partridge, a panelist for the team at Kennedy Space Center and test engineer for the Orion Capsule said she was blown away by what the students were doing. “It is incredible to see such interest in young people in building these satellites and doing this testing,” she said. “You are all phenomenal students.”
Follow the team on Twitter at @FirstinOrbit or find them on Facebook at First in Orbit.